June 1, 2016, let me introduce you to the Atlantic Beach Bikefest, more commonly called “Black Bike Week.” It happens during Memorial Day weekend, when tens of thousands of black bikers descend upon an area just north of Myrtle Beach.
You might think that sounds innocuous enough. After all, it’s a few thousand people on motorcycles going to a place where people tend to go during the vacation months in South Carolina. Myrtle Beach, after all, is a universally recognized seaside locale for people from around the country. Black Biker Week, though, stirs the soul of racial agitation in places like South Carolina.
For bikers, it is an opportunity to get together with like-minded people, checking out new rides and showing off one’s own toy. It’s a chance to celebrate Memorial Day and soak up some sun. For the local population, which is decidedly white, it’s seen as a nuisance. Black Bike Week comes just after a highly popular biker rally in the area attended by mostly white bikers on Harleys. You might say that the public gets burned out by the large crowds. And in some sense, that’s understandable. Bikes are loud, and when crowds flood into a place not generally arranged to handle those crowds, everything from traffic to restaurant reservations become more difficult.
But there’s a nastier racist element to all of this, and as a person who has grown up in South Carolina and spent a significant amount of my childhood at that particular beach, I’m well aware of the racist roots of the criticism of Black Bike Week. The two bike weeks, at least in the circles I ran in when I was around 11, were described as “biker week” and “NON-biker week.” NON? You mean, like they’re not real bikers? Oh, no, that’s “Nigg**s on Ninjas.”
There’s an ugly side to Black Bike Week, of course. Well-documented reports of irresponsible driving, public urination, disorderly conduct, drunkenness, drug use, and violence have marred the event in recent years. This culminated last weekend when three people were murdered in a local hotel adjacent to some of the event’s events.
Local hotels have complained that some of the week’s patrons have trashed their rooms, causing damage. Some businesses have sought to close their doors during Black Bike Week, drawing the critical eye of the NAACP, which has successfully sued restaurants for Civil Rights Act violations when those owners wanted to close their doors only during this particular week. It’s part of the reason why, each year, the NAACP leads Operation Black Bike Week Justice, where it watches to ensure that visitors to the beach are not discriminated against. Just as reports of lawlessness tend to flow during the days following the event, reports of discrimination are just as numerous.
Now, critics of Black Bike Week have seized especially on the three murders, calling upon local and now state authorities to stop Black Bike Week. Nikki Haley has responded in the way you might expect her to respond, pandering to these “concerned” citizens and vowing to do what she can to stop Black Bike Week.
To understand the social dynamic in Myrtle Beach, it’s instructive to peer into the history of Atlantic Beach and the area’s segregation. Atlantic Beach is known as the “Black Pearl,” a living relic to the age of segregation, when black families were not allowed to share the ample beach space occupied by whites along South Carolina’s “Grand Strand.” Something of an enclave, it sits at the north end of Myrtle Beach, zoned off from the more desirable parts along Ocean Boulevard and isolated from the quieter, more residential areas of North Myrtle Beach and Cherry Grove.
When Jim Crow policies rocked the South, young black children were not allowed to attend schools with white children, and they certainly weren’t allowed to enjoy the finer things, including South Carolina’s pristine beaches. The beach, it seems, has always been “our” thing, if one wants to take an old-world white perspective. South Carolina itself has a large and vibrant black population, but Myrtle Beach features a black population today of just more than 12-percent. In more exclusive Pawley’s Island, a few minutes south, the white population makes up more than 92-percent of the total demographic.
This is by design, of course, as red-lining policies and outright police enforcement of discrimination ensured that the beach would be almost entirely a whites-only zone from the time the Grand Strand truly started to take off in the 1950s and 1960s.
To say that Black Bike Week draws a visceral reaction from many of the state’s less evolved would be an understatement. It’s an event reflective of everything that individual and institution racism hates – black people, previously caged – quite literally, with a chain-linked fence dividing Atlantic Beach from its more affluent counterparts – spilling over into the parts of the beach where lily-whites have always felt comfortable. Black Bike Week, it seems, is the ultimate in black rebellion – a direct affront to the institution of white power, where stories-high beach houses rise from the sand as a veritable confirmation of economic power and status.
Haley and her counterparts argue that Black Bike Week must be shut down because of the violence and lawlessness that comes with it. To someone outside of the state, and someone unaware of the nasty racial history, this proposition might seem correct. After all, who likes open drug use, public drunkenness, sexual assault, and the soul-chilling sound of a murderous pistol?
The truth, however, is that when people get together in huge numbers, some level of crime is to be expected. It’s an unfortunate consequence of life that crowds and big events tend to bring out the worst kind of human behavior. This is true both because of the numbers game – more people will tend to lead to more crime – and because events like Black Bike Week, where people are on “vacation” and given license to have fun, tend toward irresponsibility.
Black Bike Week, though, is not much different from some of the other events, featuring massive crowds, that take place in the state in any given year. South Carolina is home to two successful college football programs. Each Saturday, outside of either Clemson’s Memorial Stadium or South Carolina’s Williams-Brice Stadium, one can find 80,000 or more people congregated, many for the purpose of binge drinking and abject debauchery.
Black Bike Week and its three murders have created a veritable storm of public outrage, with local residents piecing together videos of the complained conduct. What happens at Black Bike Week, though, is not tangibly different from what might happen outside of one of the state’s major football games on a given Saturday. Public drunkenness is the norm, so much so that during my time at Clemson, it was rumored that the school’s athletic department had a gentleman’s agreement with police not to bother underage drinkers or irresponsible adult drinkers unless those drinkers truly got out of hand. A stroll through one of the surrounding tailgate lots at Clemson will reveal open drug use, public nudity, public urination, a whole heap of lewd conduct, and even violence. I once saw a man get beat within an inch of his life in the middle of the street because he dared to touch the cooler of a passing driver. The passenger of that vehicle exited his SUV and bloodied the offender.
At South Carolina’s stadium, which stands only a few miles from where Haley made her statement today, things tend to be even worse. In addition to everything mentioned above, that particular stadium has been the site of multiple acts of very real violence compatible with the murders at Black Bike Week. A lawsuit filed this year seeks redress over the death of a man during a tailgate fight, which ended like something out of a gruesome, R-rated movie:
Jennings and attorney Carl Solomon of Columbia represent the family of Martin Gasque, 20, whose head was crushed after he fell under the oversized wheels of a pickup truck during a fight outside Williams-Brice Stadium with Alabama fan Curtis Simms.
In 2011, two men fought over a tailgate spot during the lead-up to the Clemson-South Carolina game, arguably the state’s most important athletic event. A WIS report stated:
Deputies arrested two men on Monday in connection to stabbing at a tailgate before the Carolina-Clemson game.
Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said Dustin Haile, 24, has been charged with Attempted Murder and Adam Rodriguez, 25, has been charged with Assault by Mob.
Deputies were called to a tailgating spot at Bluff Rd. and Hemlock Dr. around 6:30 p.m. November 26. When they arrived, they found a man who had been stabbed in the upper body.
Lott said that the victim got into a verbal altercation with Haile about moving barricades at the tailgating spot. The victim and Haile got into a physical altercation when Rodriguez joined in and struck the victim in the face using his fist, investigators said.
In 2007, a man sexually assaulted a girl younger than 11 at a USC tailgate:
Richland County deputies say a Conway man sexually assaulted a child younger than 11 while tailgating before a University of South Carolina football game in 2007.
Robert Anthony Miller of Conway is charged with criminal sexual conduct with a minor under the age of 11 for the incident, which deputies said happened the night before USC played Florida in November of 2007.
Deputy Curtis Wilson said Miller knows the victim’s father, and the group was tailgating at the RV park on Rosewood Drive and Assembly Street. Wilson said the father found out about this after reading an entry in his daughter’s diary about the incident.
Of course, it comes as no surprise that when tens of thousands of people come together with “fun” on their mind, and when copious amounts of alcohol are involved, serious crimes and not-so-serious crimes tend to follow. We’ve accepted this as a cost of doing business in the tailgate lots around our state’s most prized institutions – those hallowed football stadiums – but when Black Bike Week brings a similar level of crime, the calls for action are so strong that the state’s highest political officer feels the need to chart a swift course.
What distinguishes a tailgate at the University of South Carolina or one at Clemson from Black Bike Week? Why, when a man, after being punched, has his head squashed by a passing truck, are there no calls to shut down football, or at the very least, to ban tailgating? Why when these events show themselves to be prime ground for stabbings and child rape, are people not knocking down the doors of the State House seeking answers?
I don’t know whether it’s right to ban all public events where tens of thousands gather for their idea of fun. I suspect that if we did so, we’d see such a decline in quality of life, and our businesses would see such a reduction in economic productivity, that we’d enjoy our “safety” a little less than we think we would.
What I do know is that the reaction to Black Bike Week from the public, from law enforcement, and from the state’s political operatives, has been distinctly different from the reaction to group violence in other, similar settings. Given the history of Myrtle Beach segregation and South Carolina’s infamous racial double-standard, I don’t think I’m testing the strength of too small a limb by suggesting that maybe the skin color of those involved has something to do with the divergent response.